The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Shiva Baby.
This is such a great story about collaboration right out of film school. Emma, what was your inspiration for the film?
Emma Seligman: I feel like a lot of film students heading into their senior year want to go out with a bang, like a huge dystopian sci-fi film or a period piece, and I was one of those kids. I presented my first draft of this sci-fi script to my professor in my first week—shout out to Yemane Demissie, he’s incredible—and he was like “What is going on? What is happening here in this story?” and I feel so grateful that he did that because I don’t know if other professors do. He inspired me to do something that I understood. So then immediately I thought, it has to be Jewish and it has to be at a family function because I feel like I know those characters better than I even know my friends. Then without thinking about it too consciously, I just sort of had a thought, sugar baby at a shiva. I set it up as a funny joke, like a bar joke, “girl runs into her sugar daddy at a shiva,” it felt like a good elevator pitch. As time went on and as I developed the short in class, and certainly as I developed the feature, I began to understand more layers of it… as a sexual coming of age story for this young woman as she realizes how limited her power is. Even that only really came together on the short, so it was a process of digging and digging and digging. On the short film we cut two scenes that were more about Max and their relationship. My DP for the short Leyna Rowan said, “I think this is just about her realizing things and going through a process,” and she was so right because we kept stressing on the short that this is an important scene because it’s when she finds out that he’s married, or she finds out that he has a baby. And we finally began to realize the reasons those scenes were so important.
she helped me craft an arc of panic
Rachel, how did you become involved in the project? You were also in the short.
We were looking at pictures of ourselves on the short the other night. It’s really been an amazing journey and I almost feel like it was fated. Both Emma and I went to NYU and I acted in a million thesis films, any student film I could book. Emma saw me in a few and reached out and I auditioned for the short. Emma is a brilliant writer and director and I noticed that instantly in the script. Her writing is so nuanced and she was able to write such a complicated woman character and showcase that in only seven minutes. What I love about Danielle is that she’s flawed and messy—I’m also a messy person—and such a raw character. After we wrapped the short, Emma said she wanted to make it into a feature and was talking about all her dreams and I felt we really connected. She was working on the feature and we began writing another script together and it became a natural process of collaboration and friendship. By the time we were shooting the feature, I really felt that I knew Danielle and had grown with her as a character, so it was a natural process.
What was the most challenging part of expanding the short into a feature, writing-wise?
ES: Tone. I kept wanting there to be more stuff happening so the audience would feel like they wanted to stay in that house for an hour and a half. But then it would slip into plastic territory where it would become more like Death at a Funeral vibes, which I love but it wasn’t right for this project. And then I’d try to pull it back, and it would feel like a drama. So I think finding that happy medium was tough. I added the upstairs bathroom scene a week before we shot, because I thought we needed something to make it pop and something extra messy about Danielle making a decision with her power. I also think the relationship with Maya was really hard to write because I felt it was so important, but some people warned me against trying to force the fact that she was bisexual into this. And Maya was her foil; she’s all the things that Danielle isn’t in this community. But then she’s also her light and sense of hope at the end of the tunnel. Writing that part was challenging because I wanted it to be clear that they had this complicated history where they love each other and hate each other but I didn’t want it to be overly expositional where they say “remember how we used to date in high school?”. Communicating their history without being expositional even came in the edit while we were doing test screenings for friends and professors. People picked up on it and asked about her relationship with Maya. So Hanna Park—our incredible editor—really helped me finesse just enough information to suggest they had stuff going on without explaining it.
Did you always anticipate a horror score and what sort of conversations did you and Rachel have about that tone?
ES: I actually didn’t think we were going to have a score because the short didn’t have a score and my main references were realistic movies or shows like Transparent or Opening Night… I guess some of them did have scores, but I didn’t really picture it. And then when we were shooting the scene where Danielle is looking over at the screaming baby and voices are sort of being drowned out, I didn’t realize how the scene was going to come together until shooting. That happens sometimes. I’m so grateful I was able to let myself be open to it changing, because I realized in that moment that all that dialogue was going to be background noise and Danielle’s focus in that scene is that she’s taking in that screaming baby and her sugar daddy’s life and I realized that music would be extremely helpful so we know what Danielle is feeling. There are so few moments where Danielle actually says what she honestly feels to other characters, so the music felt important to fill in those gaps, like we’re with her, we’re not with the other characters. We starting working with our composer Ariel [Marx] who had a string background, which I wanted. She sent me a violin sound library, and I kept saying I want it anxious, I want it anxious! And I checked all of these sounds in the library and she was like, “oh, you want a horror score” and I hadn’t thought about that way. And then I was like, oh yeah, this is kind of a horror movie. I think the main thing Rachel and I kept talking about was power, and where her power lies. I think tension comes from the filmmaking process. I never want to say to an actor “be tense!” and never want to explain the camerawork to them except on a technical level.
RS: Emma gave me some references before we shot and one that was very relevant to the tension thing was Black Swan. I think that in a similar way, the horror movie only exists to Danielle. One character is experiencing the horror movie and everyone else is there, having a grand old time. Danielle is in her own horror movie of what is it like to be a woman and have all of your identities collide, and Emma’s so great in that every day in the morning she’d come up to my dressing room and we’d talk about the day’s scenes. First, we’d chart power: who has the power in a given scene because it’s a constant back and forth, always flipping. Then we’d talk about what level of anxiety Danielle is at; she already goes into the shiva not wanting to be there and she walks in the door and the trouble starts. So Emma would help me track what level of panic Danielle was at in a given scene, whether she was at a seven or two. Like how when she’s outside with Maya and it’s a breath of fresh air but then we’re back inside and it’s revving up. Emma can really speak in a way that actors understand and it felt really collaborative in the way she helped me craft an arc of panic.